Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. He maintains the blog, "The Beat," at TheNation.com. His new book is called Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.
Today marks the first anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising that erupted after Republican Gov. Scott Walker announced plans to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. Now, one year later, Walker is in the midst of a recall effort and faces an investigation for campaign corruption. "People have begun to recognize that they shouldn’t just wait for elections," says John Nichols, who covered the protests for The Nation magazine. "They should go to the street and challenge political power at the point where that power is taking away their rights or threatening them in some fundamental way." Nichols is the author of the new book, "Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street." [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Today marks the first anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising that erupted after Republican Governor Scott Walker announced his plans to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. Now, one year later, Walker is in the midst of a recall and faces an investigation for campaign corruption. It was February 14th last year when Walker first unveiled the curbs on state workers after refusing to negotiate a new contract with them.
GOV. SCOTT WALKER: Good-faith negotiation requires give and take. We are broke in the state. We’ve been broke for years. People have ignored that for years. And it’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth. The truth is, we don’t have money to offer. We don’t have finances to offer. This is what we have to offer. And if you’re going to negotiate, you’ve got to have something to offer. We don’t have something.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The next day, 30,000 teachers, students, and state and municipal workers took part in a noontime rally at the Wisconsin Statehouse in Madison.
PROTESTERS: Spread the love! Stop the hate! Don’t let Walker legislate! Spread the love! Stop the hate! Don’t let Walker legislate!
PROTESTER: Students, are we going to stand for this attack on our teachers?
PROTESTERS: Hell no!
PROTESTER: Are we going to stand for this attack on the people that make our universities work?
PROTESTERS: Kill this bill! Kill this bill! Kill this bill!
NERMEEN SHAIKH: When the Republican-controlled State Senate scheduled a vote on Walker’s anti-union bill, 14 Democratic senators took an extraordinary measure by refusing to show up, leaving the Republicans without a quorum. Then, in mid-March, Republicans stripped the bill of fiscal measures that required a 20-member quorum for action and took a surprise vote. They pushed through Walker’s anti-union bill in the State Senate, igniting a fresh round of protests. Despite initial restrictions from police, an estimated 7,000 people managed to enter the building. Many remained inside after staying overnight.
REP. CORY MASON: My name is Cory Mason, and I’m a state representative from Racine, Wisconsin. And we just had a big piece of Wisconsin history taken away from us. They took away 50 years of collective bargaining rights, closed down debate on the minority before we could even finish our arguments, took the vote and passed it. So it’s a sad day for workers’ rights. It’s a sad day for democracy here in Wisconsin.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in January, just a year after these mass protests erupted, Wisconsin activists delivered one million recall petition signatures against Governor Walker, nearly double the number needed to spark a recall election. If it succeeds, Walker will face a new election in late spring or early fall or early summer.
For more on this first anniversary of the historic Wisconsin protests, we’re joined by John Nichols. He’s the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and has just published Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.
John, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s been quite a year—
JOHN NICHOLS: It has.
AMY GOODMAN: —to say the least. Not only is the Governor facing a recall—
JOHN NICHOLS: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —but he’s being investigated. Explain.
JOHN NICHOLS: Very significantly, yeah. And, you know, in politics, we often like to have things be wrapped up in a neat box and to think that the Governor would be removed solely because he attacked labor unions and local democracy and things that we value so highly. But he also faces a real additional challenge in the fact that he came up politically via a route that’s starting to look very scandalous. Five of his aides and major fundraisers have been charged with felonies and misdemeanor wrongdoings. Some have already pled guilty. And each day, this John Doe investigation, which has now been going on for 20 months, gets closer to the Governor. And I suspect it’s going to be a very major part of the recall campaign. This guy is in a lot of political trouble.
But it is important to remember that every month, he’s raising about $5 million from right-wing donors around the country. So, as much trouble as he gets in, he will have—
AMY GOODMAN: Five million.
JOHN NICHOLS: I’m not kidding you. He was the keynote speaker on Friday night at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. He pushed aside Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, everybody. He is the rock star of the hard corporate right in America. And they’re not going to let him go down easy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Last month, Kathleen Falk became the first Democrat to announce a bid to unseat Scott Walker if a recall election takes place. Falk is the former Dane County executive. Democracy Now! interviewed her in Madison last March about the anti-union legislation signed into law by Governor Walker.
KATHLEEN FALK: I’ve been a county executive for the last 14 years, running Dane County. So I’ve been on both sides of the bargaining table, and I believe in collective bargaining. It is the right way to get things done. And you can get things done that protect taxpayers. Just in the last couple years alone, I have bargained with nine unions, a cut in pay in 2009, a cut in pay in 2010, and more contributions to health insurance in 2011. We do it respectfully, and we got it done for our citizens. So you don’t have to eliminate collective bargaining rights in order to protect taxpayers.
AMY GOODMAN: The Dane County executive, Kathleen Falk, running for governor. I remember that day well. It was freezing cold.
JOHN NICHOLS: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet more than 150,000 people—these are the largest protests in Wisconsin history—were out protesting Governor Walker.
JOHN NICHOLS: The incredible thing was that about every few days you had the largest protest in Wisconsin history, until the next one. And that’s really the story of what happened in Wisconsin. I know it’s so easy to go to the politics. And that’s such a default position for any discussion. It’s easy to go to elections. But the really remarkable thing, and why there will be a recall election, why so much has come from Wisconsin, is because those tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of people came out. And the one thing I’ll remind you of that day: there was 150,000 in Madison. That’s pretty big. But in Washburn, Wisconsin, up on the shores of Lake Superior, a town of around 2,000, they had almost 3,000 people out. So it wasn’t just Madison. It was every crossroads town in Wisconsin.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: John, you talk about, in your book, the effect of Egypt—
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —on Madison, Wisconsin.
JOHN NICHOLS: It was a huge effect. You know, most media has a hard time making connections and think, oh, America doesn’t pay attention to rest of the world. The reality is that Hosni Mubarak stepped down the day before Scott Walker announced his plan. When I went to the first major rally, I was standing next to a guy who had a sign in Arabic. Now, I’ve covered a lot of events in the Middle East, so I said, "As-Salaam Alaikum." And he said, "I don’t speak Arabic." And I said, "Well, you can imagine my confusion. I saw the sign." And he said, "Oh, I went online today, and I wrote this out. It translates as, 'If Egypt could get rid of Mubarak, we can get rid of Scott Walker.'"
And so, a lot of grassroots Wisconsinites took in a lesson from Egypt, and that lesson was: you don’t demonstrate for one day; you go out again and again and again. And the remarkable thing about what I refer to as a new politics of protest is that people have begun to recognize that they shouldn’t just wait for elections; they should go to the street and challenge political power at the point where that power is taking away their rights or threatening them in some fundamental way.
AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin has had such an enormous effect on Ohio, on Michigan, all over the country. You just wrote a piece about New Mexico. Explain what the legislature just did there.
JOHN NICHOLS: Arizona and New Mexico are both places of real hotbed stuff. New Mexico just did an incredible thing: they passed a bill telling the Congress to amend the Constitution so that we can get rid of Citizens United, so that we can get money out of politics. This is part of a real incredible grassroots movement.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you amend the Constitution? How did they propose to do it?
JOHN NICHOLS: They said Congress ought to do the job. Now, we have another—look, this is a complicated country. Legislatures themselves can begin a process of amending from the bottom up. In this case, New Mexico told the U.S. Congress to do that amendment at the federal level. But what we are seeing—and that was something driven by grassroots folks. That wasn’t something legislators walked in. What we’re seeing around the country is people who are really starting to do pressure at the state level to change the national politics. And it’s so hard. You’ve done great. You were in the Capitol. We broadcast live from an occupied Capitol.
AMY GOODMAN: We were asking people if they might be able to move aside, not exactly step aside, because people were sleeping in the Capitol.
JOHN NICHOLS: There—you know, can I say—
AMY GOODMAN: We were walking between the blanketed firefighters, police officers, and nurses and teachers. And that is another amazing story that came out of this, is how the police slept side by side or guarded the other people who were there. They stood with those that were protesting.
JOHN NICHOLS: When the word came that the Capitol was going to be cleared, the Governor was going to force the Capitol out, on that night, police officers, who were guarding the Capitol during the daytime in their uniform, announced that they would stand as "cops for labor." They put on their "cops for labor" T-shirts and came in and slept amid the protesters, so that if an order came down to clear the Capitol, the people coming in to clear it would encounter identified police officers. The firefighters came that night, as well. They slept throughout the Capitol, many in uniform, so that anybody who tried to clear the Capitol would know that they had uniformed safety personnel. But they also brought teddy bears for the kids that were sleeping in.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, one year on, John Nichols—
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —before we wrap, what do you think the movement achieved, and what do you see as some of the shortfalls, that they ought to have done but they didn’t?
JOHN NICHOLS: The movement achieved one fundamental thing: it told us that we ought to recognize that First Amendment to the Constitution says we have a right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. That’s the fundamental political right that we have to challenge power during the course of an administration. We don’t have to wait 'til the next election. That's a new politics of protest. It’s more important than any other lesson.
You know, the one frustration I have, and I deal with it in the book, is that I think when you’ve got 150,000 people out, you should probably think a little more about expanding that and even talking, frankly, of general strikes and other actions that might, you know, really bring the whole of your support base out.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why was the decision made not to hold a general strike? You talk a little bit about that.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, I do. Look, we’ve structured things in this country to so brutally attack unions that call a general strike, that basically the courts can empty their accounts out. When the Governor was taking away the dues check-off and collective bargaining rights, unions faced a life-and-death decision. Many of them made the choice not to go to a general strike. And all I say in the book is I understand that struggle, but I also understand that when you’ve got 150,000 people out, it’s a good point at which to start to think about how you can expand things and really challenge power.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation. His new book is called Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street.